When we’re on the road, the firefly twinkle of Christmas lights and warm glow of a roaring fire is just something to look forward to when we get home. The rest of the time it’s mostly cold, damp and dark – in other words, the most difficult driving conditions of the year.
Sprinkle a fresh and fluffy layer of snow on the roads, add a touch of black ice for good measure, and it gets downright treacherous. While it’s a good idea to invest in tuition at an advanced driving course, not everyone has the time or money to spare. So these invaluable tips from Peter Rodger, a former chief examiner at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, should benefit all drivers this winter.
Winter weather driving emergency: Wheelspin
“Wheelspin occurs when the power of the engine overwhelms the grip that tyres have on the road surface. It can happen when drivers least expect it, and least want it – such as pulling out at a junction or onto a roundabout. In that instance, it’s best to ease off the pressure applied to the accelerator which should help the tyres regain their hold of the road. On snow or ice, drivers can pull away by engaging first gear and simply letting up the clutch as the car’s engine is idling. This helps ensure the tyres find traction. In cars with an automatic gearbox, remember to switch to its winter setting (check the vehicle handbook if you don’t know how to do this). It means the car pulls away in second gear, reducing the likelihood of wheelspin.”
Winter weather driving emergency: Aquaplaning
“There is a good chance drivers will experience aquaplaning this winter. Rain levels are high and the ground is typically saturated, so standing water is a common hazard. It’s a frightening feeling, as though the car is skimming across the surface of the water, which it is.
My first tip is to make sure your tyres have more than 3mm of tread depth, and that they are inflated to the correct air pressure – simple steps that help guard against aquaplaning. Then remember that observation is key, so scanning the driving conditions ahead, and adapting your vehicle’s speed to the field of vision are important.
If you see a large amount of standing water in good time, reduce the car’s speed without putting yourself or following drivers at risk. If there isn’t time, and the car starts to aquaplane, don’t panic. Watch the horizon and the direction you want to travel in, keep the steering pointing straight, dip the clutch and then lift off the throttle. In what will feel like an age but is in fact a split second, you should be able to feel the grip return to normal. Don’t try to accelerate again until you have passed the water and are back on good ground.”
Winter weather driving emergency: Braking on a slippery surface
“Every mainstream new car sold today comes with anti-lock brakes as standard. Known as ABS, it’s a brilliant invention. The great thing about ABS is that it allows you to brake and steer at the same time.
So, on a slippery surface, drivers should use ABS to their advantage. In emergency situations, you can push the brake pedal with all your force, safe in the knowledge that the wheels won’t lock up. You should feel the pedal vibrate beneath your foot. This signals that the ABS is doing its job so don’t be alarmed. Continue to maintain that brake pressure until your speed is corrected or the obstacle has been avoided.”
Winter weather driving emergency: Understeer
“Imagine you’re driving towards a corner, and as you turn the steering wheel the nose of the car hits a slippery patch of ice and begins to plough straight on. This is called understeer; it means that the front tyres have lost grip. The remedy is generally simple: just ease off the accelerator to reduce the car’s speed. You may also need to unwind a little of the steering lock you’d applied. Many modern cars will have an electronic stability control system – often called ESP or ESC – which uses sophisticated sensors to determine when a car is losing control, and can apply corrective action accordingly.”
Winter weather driving emergency: Oversteer
“Understeer is the more common occurrence; oversteer will feel as though the car is trying to spin on its axis. Sometimes it may be caused by a slippery road surface, or applying too much engine power for the conditions. If that’s the case, the back tyres of rear-wheel drive cars lose traction and the tail begins to slide off course. Traction control and electronic stability systems should always be left switched on in winter weather, as they often prevent oversteer happening even before a driver’s realised something’s amiss.
Oversteer can also occur during a sudden change of direction, such as entering a blind corner too fast and abruptly applying steering lock, shutting down the throttle or braking in a panic – or sometimes a combination of all three.
If your car suffers oversteer, ease off the throttle or dip the clutch, apply corrective steering lock in the direction of the slide (so if the tail swings to the left, steer to the left) and always look up at where you want to go, not where the car is actually going.”
Read more: To chill or not to chill: when to use a car’s air-conditioning in winter weather